‘The last word’ – 24th September, 15th Sunday after Trinity

Based around Jonah 3:10-end.

I’m a great fan of the Sherlock Holmes stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  When I was a student I bought a building brick of a book published by Penguin that included all the novels and short stories.  I read through them happily until I was most of the way through ‘The Valley of Fear’ only to find the rest of the novel was missing.  It took me another 5 years to find out what happened….

I don’t know about you, but when I get to the end of tonight’s reading from Jonah,  I start flipping pages to see whether I’ve lost a bit.  God asks the question about Nineveh…

And that’s your lot. Nothing else; no reply from Jonah, that’s the end.

Our reading leaves Jonah pondering a question from God; what happened next? We have no guidance as to the fate of Jonah!   Was his mind changed? Did he live out his days in his scrappy little hut?

Your guess is as good as mine.

We have to assume that the writer of Jonah did this for a reason; that they felt that the ending was ‘fit for purpose’.  For us, the question tonight is ‘What is the purpose? Why does the book end with that question about the Assyrians?’

Let’s take a brief look at how Jonah got to this place.

Jonah had been tasked by God to go to the city of Nineveh, capital city of the Assyrians, and preach to the people, that if they didn’t mend their ways they would be destroyed.  Jonah, knows that God can be merciful, and feels that he would be wasting his time if he went to Nineveh. He disobeys God, and decides to run off in the other direction.  He takes a ship, the sailors believe him to be cursed and throw him in to the sea, where he gets taken in to the belly of a large fish, lives there for 3 days, prays to the LORD who causes the fish to vomit Jonah up on dry land.  Jonah is again told by the Lord to go to Nineveh – this time, he does what he’s told, and preaches the word of God so convincingly that the King of Nineveh says

All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.’

When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

And that brings us to where we meet up with Jonah this evening. The fact that Nineveh is still standing at this point is quite interesting in itself.  The other Old Testament books about the minor prophets often involve states and cities that have been enemies of the people of Israel, that are then punished in some way by God. Nineveh was a major rival of Israel, and yet God has shown his mercy.  Jonah angrily prays to the Lord, telling God “I told you so!”:

“O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country?”

And he then goes on to tell God that he’d rather die than live.  This seems to me to be quite an over-reaction from Jonah.  The Lord has shown mercy to the city and it’s people – and because of that Jonah would like to be dead?

What’s this telling us about Jonah?

We know from earlier in the book that Jonah hated the Assyrians.  Jonah was prejudiced and something of a bigot towards them; he may have had good reason in his eyes – who knows.  And it’s very clear he’s angry – what my mum would have called ‘cutting off your nose to spite your face’ angry.

In the novel, ‘Moby Dick’,  Father Mapple  preaches a sermon on Jonah in which he says that Jonah’s sin is “wilful disobedience.”  Which is spot-on.  But we still don’t really get any idea as to why he is so angry.

God questions Jonah’s right to be angry; after all, we’re talking about Jonah being petulantly angry with God’s decision here.  But God doesn’t punish Jonah; he sets out to engage with him.  After Jonah leaves the city to sulk, and sits under a homemade shelter, God sends him a bush to offer shelter and respite from the sun.  This pleases Jonah; he’s less pleased the following morning when God causes the bush to die and sends a heat wave for good measure.

And again, Jonah says to God that it would be better for him to die.  God points out that Jonah’s concerned about the fate of a bush that he was given as a gift, which he didn’t work to grow, and that came and went within 24 hours.  And he goes on to say:

“And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?’”

That question isn’t answered by Jonah. It’s just left hanging there.

Can WE answer it? Looking at Jonah’s behaviour and concerns during his adventures, we see that whatever happens to Jonah, his main concern is whether it’s what he wants to happen.  If something happens that isn’t what he wants, he takes his bat and ball home and states to God that he would prefer to die.  The removal of a bush or the salvation of a whole city of 120,000 people are much the same to him; it’s not what Jonah wants; therefore Jonah throws a magnificent strop.

So, as well as having issues with anger management, being a bigot, he’s also self-absorbed and egotistical, self-important and self-centred. Proud, and, ‘wilfully disobedient’.  I don’t know about you, but Jonah sounds awfully like me on a bad day.

Maybe that’s why the writer of the book of Jonah leaves it as he does – to make all of us Jonah.  God is engaging with us – as he did with Jonah.

We all have our own versions of Nineveh – those people who we just don’t like, the things that make us angry.  At the back of our minds we know that God loves these folks just like he loves us, and that despite our best efforts God will continue to work through us – as he does with Jonah.

Jonah couldn’t deal with the God’s grace that was being manifested to Nineveh; that ‘undeserved and unearnable’ love that God offers us all.

I know I have trouble taking grace on board; like Jonah, I like things my way and sometimes God’s grace may push in to my life in ways I’m not ready for. God’s grace is something we just have to receive and accept.

And the other thing about the ending of the book of Jonah? As always, God gets the last word.


Reader Joe Pritchard